Walking across the stage during commencement, diploma in hand, will be a moment of deep significance for David Nguyen.
Over the course of his college career, Nguyen has persevered through the death of his father and the struggles of being a first-generation college student. He will graduate this weekend from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with a degree in biochemistry and begin optometry school at Marshall B. Ketchum University in Fullerton, California, next year.
“For me, it’s the culmination of everything — not just school-wise, but personal growth-wise, too,” Nguyen said.
Coming into focus
Nguyen’s parents moved to Lincoln after the Vietnam War and dropped out of middle school to provide for their families. His father worked a newspaper route, and his mother worked on a farm.
As he grew up, his parents inspired him to aim high and apply to college. Nguyen dreamed of being able to provide for them financially and show them his gratitude.
“I do most of my school things for my parents, because I want to make them proud and make sure that they know that their sacrifices aren’t wasted on me. I’m taking what they’ve given to me and I’m trying to make the most of it,” Nguyen said.
Coming to college as a first-generation student motivated Nguyen, but it wasn’t always easy.
“When I first started, I didn’t have immediate family members that were in college — just some of my cousins, and maybe one of my uncles. So I didn’t know what to expect and who to ask about it,” Nguyen said. “I was really shy. I didn’t go to any clubs and I didn’t really talk to anybody, and it was really hard to make friends.”
The summer before Nguyen came to Nebraska, his father passed away from lung cancer. The weight of processing his death became another barrier to doing well in college.
“We didn’t have the closest father-son relationship, but it was enough for me,” Nguyen said. “After he passed from the cancer, going into college was a little rocky. That first semester, I did really bad in my classes.”
As time went on, Nguyen was determined to make the most of his four years and keep a positive attitude. He chose biochemistry as a major with the help of an adviser and became an ambassador for the department. And, after making a conscious effort to meet new people, he came away with a supportive network of friends that helped him get through hard times.
“Making the right group of friends helped boost my confidence,” Nguyen said. “When I met a couple friends and we really bonded together, we would all give each other pep talks, and that was one of the biggest things that motivated me throughout college and helped me with career things and personal family things. It sounds cheesy, but friends are the best thing you could ever have.”
As he mulled over potential career paths after college, Nguyen decided to shadow several eye doctors in Lincoln. The experience made him certain that optometry was the field for him.
“I really like optometry because I would watch the doctors interact with their patients, and it was a lot different from shadowing surgeons and physicians,” Nguyen said. “They were really relaxed with their time and they really got to know their patients by their first name. I think the optometry field allows for so much more personal contact and personal communication, and that’s what really drew me into it.”
Last summer, Nguyen began a position as an optometric technician at an office in Lincoln. After studying intently for the Optometry Admissions Test, he was accepted to optometry school in California.
“It was my No. 1 school that I applied to, so I was really happy about that,” Nguyen said. “A lot of that is the help of friends, advisers, family and just everyone supporting me, believing in me and helping me out.”
While he’s excited for the next step in his journey, he will miss the company of one of his No. 1 supporters.
“When I told my mom about optometry school, she started crying — like, ‘You’re going to leave the house’ crying,” Nguyen said. “She was happy for me — she was just sad that I would be leaving her.”
As he leaves Nebraska, Nguyen advises other students to take risks. He wouldn’t be in the same place if he hadn’t.
“Be confident and step out of your comfort zone. It’s always a good idea to try out new things and see where it goes,” Nguyen said. “You’ll be upset with yourself if you don’t get the chance to see what’s really out there.”